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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 13 June 2019

"In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick

This book recounts the story of the whaleship Essex, from Nantucket, which was sunk by a whale in 1820. The crew subsequently travelled in three whaleboats across the Pacific, many died, some being eaten by their starving shipmates; there was one case in which one of the crews drew lots and one lad was killed by his friend for food (this latter story is adapted for the novel Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch). The account of the voyage by first mate Owen Chase (who possibly unknowingly incited the whale attack: On the morning of November 20, 1820, sperm whales were not the only creatures filling the ocean with clicking sounds; there was also Owen Chase, busily nailing a piece of canvas to the bottom of an upturned whaleboat.”; C 5) was written in 1821; Herman Melville read it and was inspired to write Moby-Dick. Philbrick speculates in chapter 14 that the theme of Ahab's revenge came via a story told by Ralph Waldo Emerson who in 1834 was told of a white whale, famed for attacking whaling ships with its jaw, which had been hunted and killed by a boat called the Winslow or Essex; Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, became captain of the Winslow.

This account is based on the account written in 1876 by the cabin boy (he also happened to be at the helm of the Essex when it was rammed by the whale) Thomas Nickerson which was lost until 1960 and only published in 1984.  

It is a tremendous story and beautifully written. Whilst written at a distance and thus able to reflect on the economic and social circumstances surrounding the Nantucket whale industry and the lives of the whalers (which, for example, enables understanding of the fact that those seamen who died first were predominantly African American), at the same time it transports you to the deck of the Essex and into the small whaleboats which attacked the whale. There were times when I was in those whaleboats and I felt hungry. At the end one is left with admiration for the indomitability and the ingenuity of the survivors, as well as deep sadness for those who died.

The story goes on to look at the consequences. Amazingly both Captain Pollard and Owen Chase returned to the sea, although only temporarily. Even more amazingly, when the captain of the Essex took his next command two of the Essex crew served under him again, one being Thomas Nickerson and the other Charles Ramsdell “the boy who had spent ninety-four days in a whaleboat with him” and who had been the one to propose drawing lots to see who should be sacrificed and who would actually kill the victim. (C 13)

Other consequences include, of course, Moby-Dick but also The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe in the early part of which the ship-wrecked hero survives an open boat voyage through cannibalism, the victim being chosen by the drawing of lots.

Selected quotes:

  • Unfortunately, the anger which [the Quakers] are forbidden to express by outward actions, finding no vent, stagnates the heart.” (C1, quoting William Comstock)
  • A sharp-sighted man was a jewel in the estimation of the genuine whaling captain.” (C 1)
  • A treatment for seasickness: “The sufferer was made to swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which was then pulled back up again. If the symptoms returned, the process was repeated.” This remedy also appears in Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome. (C 2)
  • “Salt beef and salt pork ... was so salty that when the cook placed it in a barrel of saltwater for a day (to render it soft enough to chew), the meat’s salt content was actually lowered.” (C 3)
  • The strong winds and unpredictable currents that boiled in and around these volcanic outcroppings sometimes created the illusion that the [Galapagos] islands were actually moving.” (C 4)
  • In both Sperm Whale society and Nantucket Society the males spent most of their lives alone only returning to the female pod to breed. “In their dedication to killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.” (C 4)
  • Nantucketers recognized that the positions of captain and first mate required contrasting personalities.” Captains needed to be authoritarians, first mates needed to be more personal. (C 6)
  • The human body, which is 70 percent water, requires a bare minimum of a pint a day to remove its waste products.” (C 7)
  • The act of self-expression - through writing a journal or letters - often enables a survivor to distance himself from his fears.” (C 7)
  • The biological anthropologist Stephen McGarvey has speculated that the people who survived these voyages [the original voyages of the Polynesians to colonise remote Pacific islands] tended to have a higher percentage of body fat before the voyage began and/or more efficient metabolisms, allowing them to live longer on less food than their thinner companions. (McGarvey theorizes that this is why modern day Polynesians suffer from a high incidence of obesity.)” (C 9)
  • Many of the so-called American characteristics ... abounding energy, generosity, optimism - become intelligible as the expected behaviour response of a well-fed people.” (C 10)
  • Anthropologists and archaeologists studying the phenomenon of cannibalism have estimated that the average human adult will provide about sixty-six pounds of edible meat.” (C 11)
A fascinating and most interesting book which has been made into a film.

June 2019; 238 pages

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